In 2015, when Rebecca Cutter started writing Hightown, the ways in which the opioid epidemic was laying waste to communities across America hadn’t yet come into national focus. Cutter grew up spending summers in Provincetown on the Massachusetts peninsula of Cape Cod, and she knew the area for its cultural vibrancy, as an LGBTQ-friendly vacation spot of beaches, carnivals, and color. But one of her relatives, a labor-and-delivery nurse at Cape Cod Hospital, had long been witnessing a bleaker side of life in the off-season: more and more babies being born physically dependent on drugs.
Crime dramas tend to play out in literal and spiritual gloominess—picture the murky, desaturated gloom of Ozark; the neon-at-midnight haze of The Deuce; the faded ’70s sepia of Mindhunter. Hightown, which debuted on Starz Sunday night, floats easily between light and dark. Its first two episodes are directed by the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound, Black Panther), who finds an otherworldly kind of beauty in contrasts, such as the lurid shadows of a nightclub, or the unsettling poetry of a body washed up on a beach at sunrise. Hightown plays with and inverts stereotypes: Its central character, Jackie Quiñones (played by Monica Raymund), whom Cutter likens to a “female Don Draper,” is the kind of hard-drinking, hard-boiled investigator who turns up all the time in fiction and drama, but rarely in the form of a gay Latina fisheries agent. And the glorious excess of P-Town summer is undercut by the more desolate shadow of substance abuse on the Cape, from Jackie’s debilitating morning-afters to people overdosing in cars, motels, and public bathrooms.